Les jours de gloire

Napoleon’s Empire style at the MFA
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 16, 2007
01_NapoleanIonHisImperialTh
NAPOLEON I ON HIS IMPERIAL THRONE: (1806) Ingres’s portrait presents the myth but not the
man.

“Symbols of Power: Napoleon and The Art of The Empire Style, 1800–1815” | Museum Of Fine Arts: October 21–January 27
“In four days I should have been in London . . . not as a conqueror, but as a liberator. I should have been another William III; but I would have acted with greater generosity and disinterestedness. . . . We would have presented ourselves to them, not as conquerors, but as brothers, who came to restore them to their rights and liberties.” That’s Napoleon Bonaparte speaking, after his hopes of rescuing the British Isles had been blighted by the British blockade and the Battle of Trafalgar. America, after all, had thrown off the yoke of George III a quarter-century earlier, so why not the British themselves? Of course, Napoleon also attempted to liberate Egypt, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Russia, and numerous other countries, and though some did regard him as the bearer of freedom, most did not. A mere decade after the Revolution had guillotined thousands for the crime of enjoying privilege, however, France suffered Napoleon to crown himself as emperor. Who was this conundrum of charisma and contradiction? “Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800–1815” — which, after opening at the St. Louis Art Museum, comes to the Museum of Fine Arts (it’ll finish its tour at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris) — looks at the Napoleonic riddle in the mirror of its art.

He was, for starters, not French. He was born Napoleone di Buonaparte, in Corsica, in 1769, just one year after it was handed over to France, and though he learned French, at age nine, in order to be admitted to a military school near Troyes, he never spoke it without an Italian accent. Having distinguished himself during the Revolution, notably in quelling risings in Toulon and Paris, he won the favor of the ruling Directory and was given command of the French army in Italy. After successes there and in Egypt, he led the military coup that overthrew the Directory, and though at first he was only one of three consuls heading the new government, he secured his election as first consul. An assassination plot (charged to the Bourbons) enabled him to demand he be named emperor, to forestall further efforts at a Bourbon restoration.

The coronation took place, in the enforced presence of Pope Pius VII, on December 2, 1804. Over the next 10 years, Napoleon waged war — ostensibly in defense of the Revolution — against most of Europe. But he was also one of the founders of the modern nation state: centralized, bureaucratic, patriotic. He promulgated the civil laws we know as the Napoleonic Code; he brought everything from banking and taxation to education and the sewer system under his control. He led hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen to their deaths; yet when he escaped from Elba in 1815 and returned to France, hundreds of thousands more followed him. He looked back, consciously, to Caesar Augustus and Charlemagne, and ahead to Hitler and Stalin.

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Related: The Empire strikes back, Turn on the bright lights, Gods and monsters — and David Hasselhoff, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Roman Catholicism, Power Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David,  More more >
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